To Have a Home of One’s Own
An increasing number of women are buying, inheriting or building privately-owned residential homes in South Africa. This brief essay focusses on African women and their approach to owning residential property. Through in-depth interviews, it illuminates a practice of acquiring residential property that is significantly shaped by conceptions of dignity.
To ‘own one’s own house’, or ‘ho ba le ha hao’ is not merely a social position or status, but a trajectory of making and knowing one’s self as human. The same phraseology ‘to own one’s own house’ also means to leave home and start one’s own family, or to set up place elsewhere as an autonomous adult.
A modest home of one’s own makes a woman feel worthy. In our setting, the wanderer, or the one born to a wanderer who could not bury the umbilical cord, or the one whose corpse cannot leave through the doorposts of his or her own abode – none of these, is fully a man. Neither are they woman.
The narratives of honour explored below are one segment of a larger conversation between Africans in post-apartheid South Africa. They reveal one strand in a fine mesh of contested social rules around the accumulation of goods – in other words consumption – in African society.
These particular narratives trenchantly advocate self-help – that one ought to pull one’s self up by the bootstraps, and yet, at the same time, create a baseline of social security for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
People invest a lot of money in houses precisely because they feel they have so little, and that what they have can, in any case, anytime be lost.
Home ownership in this context speaks very powerfully to feelings of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. More significantly, class matters – not only because it delineates lived socio-economic positions but because class shapes the routine strategies through which social roles are navigated and how women can buy or build homes.
Owning homes, especially when acquired through purchase, is clearly part of an expanding consumer society. Black South Africans, who were largely excluded from such routes of accumulation during the apartheid era, can now participate as full citizens in the economic as well as political sphere; they are involved in parts of Johannesburg as well as Soweto in a thriving property market.
However, I am writing about a much poorer area, far from the heart of this market in the borderlands of South Africa and Lesotho, at places such as Blikana, Sterkspruit and on the outskirts of Maseru. But here too, and in many far flung rural and peri-urban areas, Africans are building and buying homes, not simply infiltrating residential areas that were once preserved for whites, but building new homes.
Areas such as Herschel have been interesting to academics largely because of their poverty and their role in producing unskilled migrants. However, there is another history of migration from these parts. Black professionals – teachers, nurses and members of the clergy, civil servants, policemen – have long been travelling back and forth between these remote peripheries and larger metropoles like Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The women I spoke to in 2016 belong in this category. I was concerned to construct ‘biographies of ownership’. By this I mean narratives through which people describe their journey to becoming an owner of property, and their experience thereof, as well as the meanings such property holds for them.
Each of these women owned and resided in a ‘modern’ house, meaning a brick structure that is portioned into rooms: a kitchen, at least three bedrooms, a living room, covered with roof tiling, with a garden and surrounded by a fence.
The notion of ‘ownership’ in this setting is itself a complicated practice, because not all the properties owned are held under private title. It is to these ambivalent modes of ownership, the meanings attached to them, and the lives in which they are situated, that we now turn.
They each told me widely different stories about home, but each described an experience of exhaustion, of needing a place to rest, searching for a site to ‘hide’, and choosing a suitable site. ‘Me A’ holds private title to her home, which she purchased with her husband in Zastron in the early 1990s.
In her words, ‘here the shoe that sounds is mine’ (mona seeta ho ‘la sa ka). This is a common idiom that expresses both the idea of ownership and also that she has the legitimate say over what happens at her house. She sees the house as ‘my [place of] refuge (setshabelo) …. and my family’s … That is where we celebrate our joy, it is where we console one another when there is sadness and so on. It is my “shelter” [rendered in English] in the world because I live under its roof’.
This language also strikingly echoes a biblical passage in Psalms – the sense of God as refuge and place of rest.
They had an earlier house in Sterkspruit, formerly part of Transkei, where land was in a form of customary tenure. They had planned to sell the property to recover some of their costs. This, however, failed. The local chief said the property had already been taken over. They did not press the matter further.
‘Had this not happened’, she concludes, ‘we would not have bought a house in Zastron’. Property in Zastron, a town in the Free State, is freehold and not subject to local political authorities.
‘Me D’ grew up on white-owned farms where her grandfather built homes with mud, roofed with thatch. ‘There is nothing left there’, she says, ‘only the ruins (dithaka) are left, only the graves are left’. ‘Me D’ has no attachment to that forlorn place. It is not her inheritance, not a place to which she can return.
The aspiration to have her own house, is being fashioned into an empire of property, an investment into the future for children and grandchildren whose future in the world is not clear.
‘It has always been my aim in life to own my own house so that my children can each have their own home, for the future of children of my children. When you have your own house you have your eyes. I saw it in my own life how I struggled not having my own place. My children can be able to progress (tsoelopele). I live here, I need a house here, you need that stability (botsitso).’
It is not unusual for women to spend their years of retirement building or improving their homes. Near Maseru ‘Me B’s elderly mother is still supporting her son, who was unable to procure funding for tertiary education or secure employment.
She explains further that ‘I was in a hurry to leave renting because it was taking money out of my pocket – that rent money is [now] changing some of the things in the [new] house’.
In her words, ‘my own place is an asset, valuable asset, appreciating value’. They could have bought property in the area where her husband grew up, which is a little further from town but, she notes that ‘investing in property in town is more valuable’. School, services and other facilities are also better in town.
However, the area is by no means exclusive. There is a mix of structures because some of the areas around Maseru were previously allocated by chiefly placement. Property prices are rising and there is an incentive for poorer families to sell to more affluent newcomers, but some wish to remain in the modest one- and two-roomed structures they own.
‘Me B’s highly modern house, enclosed in a security fence, stands a stone’s throw from others of its own kind. Yet she also lives cheek by jowl with those of lesser means, who own two or three roomed houses.
Her immediate neighbours are renting single rooms, commonly referred to as ‘malaene’, literally ‘the lines’, to indicate the row of four to six adjoining rooms in each of which typically resides a family. There is one communal tap to share on the property, and two ablution facilities for all to use.
‘Me B’ is uneasy about these neighbours whom she thinks have little conception of ‘keeping one’s own place’ (ho hlokomela) and as ‘addicted to poverty’ (ba tloaetse tsotleho).
‘Me C’ is in her mid-thirties. She is not married, has no children, and has lived in her own home alone, for over six years, since she was twenty-eight years old. She holds a good post as a government employee in Pretoria and travels abroad frequently, representing her office in many parts of Africa and Asia. She owns a bachelor pad in a new townhouse complex suburb in Pretoria East, where property is owned under sectional title
After moving out of a township, she first rented a flat in Sunnyside but found it had ‘too many Nigerians’ and the neighborhood was ‘out of hand’.
Her lucky break was coming across someone who was renting a flat in Pretoria East through an estate agent, but was no longer able to live there, and needed someone to take up the contract. This is how she moved to Aladdis Park.
It was a cluster of duplexes, mostly owned by retired white couples. ‘It was not quite my space’, she says, ‘but it was structured’. She lived close enough to Pretoria for friends to come over, to pick her up and go out with them for dinner ‘without worrying about driving into the township’.
She also lived closer to a better quality shopping complex. The decision to purchase her own house in a new, remote townhouse complex in Pretoria East was in her mind the next step in a trajectory of ‘survival’.
‘My parents failed to build a home for us, but maybe I can do something for myself. I had no home to go to, almost like a street kid; maybe it’s exaggerated [I did not have the sense that] it’s my room and it’s always there. It does not have to be a physical structure. Everything boils down to security I guess, a sense of belonging.’
Home is where the search is over, in her words, ‘permanence’. She says of her bachelor pad, ‘it may be small but it’s mine, yes the bank’s [mortgage] but mine’.
‘Me E’ says, in English, that having a home of one’s own, ‘means the whole world’. It certainly occupies much of her time and consumes the energies she still has, being a retired teacher in her mid-eighties.
For many years she participated in stokvels as a fundraising venture that provided periodic bulk income to invest into her home – to erect a new fence, install built-in cupboards, fit new tiling on the kitchen floors, or buy mats and rugs for the sitting room.
Although she was South African, she developed her home in Lesotho in the apartheid period. Her first home was a four-roomed house in Bensonvale – a bedroom, a dining room, a sitting room and a kitchen. They sought an allocation of land from the local chief, in the presence of witnesses (banna ba lekhotla). She and her husband chose property close to the road, not far from the Methodist mission where they worked.
They had to sell their property and remove to Lesotho in 1958, crossing the border and settling in Morija, another mission station, until finally they were able to get another ‘placement’ in HaTsosane, Maseru.
‘Me E’ remembers that some families were selling their fields and the chief and his committee were handling the sales. She bought the land for cash, because ‘I was not just getting placement from the chief, I was buying someone else’s fields (masimo) that they were given by the chief.’
They were issued with a Form C to mark this transaction, a ‘document that serves as evidence of placement or transfer of rights to the land in residential areas’ (lengolo la bopaki ba kabo oa mobu kapa phano ea ditokelo mobung mahaeng) signed and stamped by the chiefly office.
The Form C was later replaced by a ‘lease’, a form of documentation peculiar to landholding in Lesotho which, while freely allowing private sale of land between individuals, makes them subject to the discretionary powers of the government, in ways mediated by laws of inheritance and marked by collection of quitrents by the government.
In summary, the motives expressed for seeking ownership of residential property were mixed but all of the interviewees expressed a keen sense of finding stability and security.
Those who had allocations in areas of customary tenure found their rights unpredictable and those who rented properties found this both expensive and insecure. Purchase of residential property was difficult in the apartheid era, which was associated with discrimination and instability.
Ownership and investment in property is a route for women to acquire and control their own space, to express their dignity, make a long term home, to invest productively and to provide security for their families.
These interviews are not representative but they provide some sense of a wider process that is helping to shape residential zones not only in the major metropolitan areas but in more distant peri-urban areas such as the borderlands between South Africa and Lesotho.